A few words about Stephen Bailey’s “The Uncurling Nautilus”

posted by: Sarah Perske

Nautilus - Version 3One of my goals for this blog is to periodically say a few words about works posted on the “Listening” page in the hope of initiating conversation about those works. This week I’d like to highlight Stephen Bailey’s “The Uncurling Nautilus” for cello and laptop. Please take a moment to listen to the piece if you haven’t already done so (click the image on the left). For that matter, take a moment to listen even if you’re already familiar with the piece! I’ve heard the version for horn and laptop in live performance several times now, and new details have emerged upon each hearing.

Both versions of the piece strike me as particularly compelling integrations of electronics and an acoustic instrument. The electronic element functions both as a virtual space in which the cello resonates (I think this is most audible in the outer sections of the work), and as an “instrument” in its own right (this can be heard in the inner sections, starting at 2:37 in this recording). It is also notable that the laptop performer’s role is truly performative, with a high degree of interaction between the laptop performer and the cellist. At 2:37, for example, the laptop performer must trigger groups of notes in response to the cellist’s pacing. I appreciate the sonic depth and richness that the electronic element creates in this piece, and the timbral variety created by the use of vocalization and percussive sounds in the cello part.

Stephen Bailey has interesting things to say about the structure of the piece:

“Many notable composers have had a fascination with the Fibonacci sequence. This is a series of numbers where the next number is reached through the addition of the previous two. The order of these numbers is 0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21 and so on. Another important element of this sequence of numbers is the ratio between each consecutive number after the third. This ratio is about 62% and has for many years been known as the golden ratio. This ratio also describes the spiral curling of the shell of a nautilus, a sea-dwelling cephalopod related to, but far more ancient than, the squid and the octopus.

The Uncurling Nautilus is not me expressing my own fascination with the Fibonacci sequence, though I do use the sequence as a compositional tool. The initial concept behind this work was one of gradual accumulation of elements over time and the Fibonacci sequence stuck out as a significant and interesting pattern through which to accumulate elements that wasn’t simply 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 etc. The work is split into three main sections: in the first, the cello plays brief gestures which are played back by the computer as microtonal clusters through a delay. The Fibonacci sequence governs the accumulation of attacks in this section. So first the cello plays one note, then one again, then two, three, five, eight and so on. This creates micro-level call and response periods of growth and decay which, together, create a macro-level accumulation of sound. In the second main section, the cello plays a lyrical, rhythmically free melody and is accompanied by chords played by the computer. The accumulation of texture within the accompaniment is governed by the Fibonacci sequence: first the cello is accompanied by one note, then two, three, five and so on. The third section is a shortened recapitulation of the first. Each of these sections is separated from the next by a cadenza, first improvised by the cello, and then played by the computer based on recorded and highly altered material from the cello’s cadenza.”

About Stephen Bailey:

SBaileycolorcropA fierce experimentalist, Stephen Bailey is a Colorado-based composer of chamber, choral, and electronic music. Stephen’s music embodies a language in which the primary concern is expression, and the primary tool is texture. This language borrows techniques from composers of minimalism, sound mass, and post-serialism. The result can be both ecstatically serene and forcefully chaotic, both sumptuously beautiful and disturbingly ugly.

Because of a strong background in audio engineering and music production, Stephen fully embraces the incorporation of technology into music, while also respecting the beauty and expression of classical forms, genres and instruments.

Stephen’s music has been featured twice on the Playground Ensemble’s annual Colorado Composer’s Concert, as well as their 2013 New Creations concert. Stephen was also one of
three composers to have their music performed at The Classical Salon at Dazzle Nightclub. His devotion to modern music has garnered him commissions from the Metropolitan State University of Denver Men’s Choir, Our Lady of Fatima Catholic Church and a number of Denver-area musicians and chamber groups. He has studied composition with composers such as Conrad Kehn, Leanna Kirchoff, Fred Hess, Cherise Leiter, Abbie Betinis, Brian Johanson,
 and Chris Malloy. He holds an Associate of Arts degree and a Bachelor of Music degree in music composition from Arapahoe Community College and Metropolitan State University of Denver respectively and is currently pursuing a Masters of Music in composition from the University of Denver.

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